The Influence of Administrative Law Judge and Political Appointee Decisions on Appellate Courts in National Labor Relations Board Cases


  • Cole D. Taratoot

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    • Address correspondence to Cole D. Taratoot, Department of Government, University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1720 Second Street South, Birmingham, AL, USA, 35294. Telephone: (205) 934-2339; E-mail:

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  • The author would like to thank the reviewers of this article for their comments and suggestions. In addition, the author would like to thank the following people for their suggestions and help with this article: David C. Nixon, Robert M. Howard, Sunjoo Kwak, and Renato Corbetta. I would also like to thank my research assistant, Anthony Del Rio, for his hard work in the construction of the data set used in this project.


Scholars have long been simultaneously concerned with the factors that influence appellate court decision making and the level of deference that the courts allow for agencies. However, scholars have treated administrative agencies as unitary actors with a single level of decision making, but in reality agency decisions involve input from multiple actors within the agency. I argue that appellate courts rely more heavily on decisions made by actors in the bureaucracy with greater levels of expertise and who are less politically motivated as cues in their decision making. This theory is bolstered by legal precedent in the area of administrative law that suggests courts should more heavily rely on the expert judgment of administrative judges. Thus, as a result of their increased expertise, appearance of political neutrality, and institutional support, courts will be more reliant on decisions issued by administrative law judges (ALJs) than those issued by the political appointees as cues in their decision making. Using over 300 unfair labor practice decisions issued by the federal appeals courts on review of cases from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board), I develop a model of appeals court decision making in unfair labor practice cases as a function of the initial decision of the ALJ, the final order of the political appointees of the NLRB, case characteristics, the ideology of the deciding appeals court panel, Supreme Court influence, and economic factors. Though the ideology of the court plays a role in its decision making, cues from ALJ decision making and that of the Board weigh more heavily in appellate court outcomes. However, cues from ALJ decisions play the most consistent role in appellate court decision making, even in more difficult cases. This has important implications for agency strategy in courts and suggests that future research should consider the influence of lower-level decision making over appellate court decision making in the area of administrative law.